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The poem was begun around 61 AD and several books were in circulation before the Emperor Nero and Lucan had a bitter falling out. Lucan continued to work on the epic – despite Nero's prohibition against any publication of Lucan's poetry – and it was left unfinished when Lucan was compelled to suicide as part of the Pisonian conspiracy in 65 AD. A total of ten books were written and all survive; the tenth book breaks off abruptly with Caesar in Egypt.
Lucan is heavily influenced by Latin poetic tradition, most notably Ovid's Metamorphoses and of course Virgil's Aeneid, the work to which the Pharsalia is most naturally compared. Lucan frequently appropriates ideas from Virgil's epic and "inverts" them to undermine their original, heroic purpose. Sextus' visit to the Thracian witch Erichtho provides an example; the scene and language clearly reference Aeneas' descent into the underworld (also in Book VI), but while Virgil's description highlights optimism toward the future glories of Rome under Augustan rule, Lucan uses the scene to present a bitter and gory pessimism concerning the loss of liberty under the coming empire.